Knowing the story behind John Merrick that I cover at least one each Septem ber, this might be my most classic example of an understatement used by me in writing this column for the past several years: John Merrick lived at a time when it was very complicated to be black in America. Come to think, based on my historical background and training, I can’t think of a time that it hasn’t been complicated being black in America, down to the present time.
During the height of Merrick’s prominence in the early 1900s, competing for his attention on the national stage were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Both men were dreamers, and DuBois was more revolutionary, believing that blacks should use peaceful resistance in demanding full equality as citizens in America. No such public pressure was urged by Booker T. Washington for black equality, who urged blacks to remain in the South and work to get along with whites believing “that the Negro’s entry into the business world would furnish a road to racial advancement on all fronts.”
John Merrick’s rise from slavery to prominence began with the family’s decision to migrate from the Taylors’ Bridge Township, in Sampson County in 1871. Young John was just 12 years old when his mother decided to leave the farm, taking John and his younger brother Richard to Chapel Hill. For those of you who are familiar with the amazing story of John Merrick from having followed my column over the years, the rest is history.
Looking back 120 years since the founding of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, at that time, the nation’s largest black-owned life insurance company, John Merrick’s living legacy and monument, renovated in the 1960s, remains an impressive part of the landscape in downtown Durham. One of Merrick’s elite friends in Durham, James B. Duke, once remarked, “The name of Merrick deserves to live and be a constant call to others to seek success and to use success for the good of mankind.” And, indeed, it has. Hopefully, as the story of John Merrick becomes more familiar, it will continue to have greater impact, far and wide.
Now, let me point out here that a major part of Merrick’s success can be attributed to his strong religious faith, living a life that people knew was divine, something destined from God. According to 1 John 2:17, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Merrick’s profound positive influence on the black populations of Durham began with the creation of black enterprises for the segregated residential areas in Durham, “where Negro enterprise flourished with unparalleled vigor.”
The birth of John Merrick on Sept. 7, 1859 in Sampson County was destined to have a profound impact on North Carolina. Let John Merrick be that “shining example of what a person can make of him or herself with determination and great initiative.”
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School.